Mark Reviews Movies

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Francis Lawrence

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright, Jena Malone, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language)

Running Time: 2:26

Release Date: 11/22/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 20, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is all about what was missing from its predecessor: consequences. The first movie, which introduced us to a post-second-civil-war United States and the horrific practice of forcing children and teenagers into a battle to the death as a means of punishment for a decades-old uprising, was far too enraptured in the pomp of the buildup the games to genuinely serve as a critique of its eponymous blood sport. There was something sensationalistic about the length and campy splendor of the pageantry that undermined the inherent evil of a system that would use televised slaughter as a means of instill fear and a warped sense of hope in those who have to accept the practice.

It was never an entirely plausible scenario. Save for one brief scene, there was no evidence of even the murmurings of rebellion against the Capitol, where the wealthy take in the stories of the participants and their eventual fight to the death as a demented form of reality TV. People simply did accept the games as entertainment. The contestants, even our hardheaded protagonist, bought into the strategy at the expense of ignoring the horror of it.

All of that changes here. Catching Fire is not only a superior sequel in terms of form but also in how it helps us reconcile the shortcomings of its predecessor. With a much clearer focus on the politics of this world, the film gives an abundance of reasons why the inhabitants of the 12 outlying districts of Panem do seem so accepting of their fate. It allows its characters room to navigate the complex, loaded system that keeps them oppressed and, through their decisions, to grow and show the stuff of which they are made.

In other words, the world of Suzanne Collins' books actually feels like a credible, functioning place this time. A lot of that can be credited to director Francis Lawrence, who keeps the sometimes strange and gaudy visual aesthetics of the previous movie (Those costume, hair, and makeup designs alone easily slip into self-parody) and somehow makes them seem like a completely natural manifestation of runaway affluence, but cinematographer Jo Willems' murky lighting also helps tremendously, making the abject poverty of the districts and the turpitude of the Capitol all the more constricting.

These are relatively minor tweaks to what has been established, but their influence on the film's overall effectiveness cannot be downplayed. The screenplay by Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn also plays with our expectations. We see similar situations unfold here but with enough variation to keep us uncertain of what will happen.

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are adjusting to life after winning the Hunger Games. They and their families now have nice homes in an exclusive section of District 12, and the public still adores their love story, which, it turns out, Katniss faked to a certain degree in order to help them both survive. Her real affections lie with Gale (Liam Hemsworth), the guy who was on screen for about five minutes in the last movie. Here, Gale and Katniss are star-crossed lovers (a phrase used often to describe Katniss and Peeta) who cannot make their feelings for each other known, lest the entire charade that kept her and Peeta alive disintegrates.

The two champions must participate in a publicity tour through Panem, and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has put the lives of those in the districts in her hands. If she can't convince them that she and Peeta are loyal to each other and the Capitol, the chances of a revolt are higher, and Snow is more than willing to destroy any district that dares to oppose him. At one stop, "peacekeepers" execute a man who starts a salute to Katniss and the fallen tributes from his district.

No one is safe, and the conflict between knowing she needs to stop Snow and wanting to keep people protected from retaliation weighs heavily on Katniss. She has visions and nightmares of the events in the Hunger Games.

In the last movie, Katniss was merely a passive participant and observer, but in this one, she's quickly forced into an awakening when Snow announces that this year's Hunger Games will feature former champions from the 12 districts (There's a wicked bit of absurd traditionalism in how the ceremony of picking a name from a bowl must occur even though Katniss is the only female champion of her district). Even Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), the alcoholic mentor for tributes from District 12, and Effie (Elizabeth Banks), the ridiculously adorned representative from the Capitol, have more depth here. The former shows he'll sacrifice himself for someone else, while the latter displays she actually has a heart—one that has been damaged after years of helping young men and women go off to their deaths.

By the time the 75th Annual Hunger Games get underway, the film has given us good reason to care about the outcome. Some of that also has to do with the casting of smaller parts, like Jeffrey Wright as a technology whiz, Jena Malone as a feisty combatant, Sam Claflin as determined fighter whose devotion to his mentor points to a streak of compassion, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the new Gamemaker. The locale, which is a dense jungle with a spinning dais surrounded by water in the center, is also new and dynamic, providing a lot of diabolically clever obstacles for the tributes to face.

Whatever skepticism the first movie raised about this setup is eliminated with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. This is a stronger and more developed variation of what we already know. It's both a sequel that improves upon its predecessor and, ultimately, a promising teaser that instills optimism for the series' finale.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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